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From time immemorial, human beings have discussed beauty. As one of the pleasures of life we have always tried to define it, to clarify where it comes from, how it can be pursued or judged and whether an objective beauty can exist. In different and distant ages, man has tried to give himself rules to establish the reproduction of perfection.

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Polyclitus, Doryphorus, Roman copy, I cent. BC, Naples, Museo Archeologico Naizonale.

In ancient Greece, in the idyllic place where all the cool stuff was happening, for the first time in history, the matter of beauty was theorised by several philosophers and it was deeply connected with the way they treated art (see those handsome men carved in stone). Xenophon, one of Socrates’ pupils and reporter of his famous speeches, in his Memorabilia wrote, among other things, about the ideal beauty, that represents nature through an assembly of the best existing parts and details[1]. Fair enough. This is exactly the creative method of Classical and Hellenistic art, where human figures were made beautiful thanks to the sum of the best parts chosen among all the bodies. Old style Photoshop and every person’s dream. That practice led to the establishment of a ‘canon’, a combination of mathematic rules related to proportions, mostly applied to men’s bodies. The most famous example of canon is the Polyclitus’ Doryphoros (circa 440 BC), still considered a universal example of beauty; every part of the body poses in relation with the others in a particular rhythm (what the Romans called ponderatio, basically standing harmoniously putting all the weight on one leg), his face is 1/10 the length of the body, his head is 1/8 and so on. Women, keep a ruler in your pocket, just in case. Vitruvius, later on, theorised these rules of proportion as if there was a simple method to reach the perfect beauty following principles of symmetry and harmony[2].

One of Socrates’ pupils, the one that stood out most, called Plato (V-VI cent. BC), added a dash of philosophy saying in his Symphosium that all the beautiful things existing in nature are just manifestations of an idea of beauty, a prototype that is eternal, absolute and not understandable by everyone, while art is only mimesis, a fake copy of beauty.

Were ancient Greeks mere dreamers, too focused on speculation, or can an idea of objective beauty really exist and be reckoned as objective by the viewer?

It is hard to escape the Platonic notion of beauty in any period of history. As it is easily notable from paintings, sculptures, buildings, fashion, the concept of what is beautiful and pleasant changed many times and often came back to the past ideals (just think of the proliferation of granny’s clothes in vintage shops and the proliferation of vintage shops). Renaissance artists could have never worked without the notion of an abstract model of beauty[3]. A woman with a wide forehead, red hair, small mouth and the second finger of the foot longer than the others was totally hot at that time. Scholars like Leonardo, Luca Pacioli, Durer, Cesare Cesariano (translator of the Roman Vitruvius, circa 80-15 BC) from the end of the V and the beginning of the VI century, put their efforts into the publication of treatises on proportions[4]: their purpose was to establish guides for all the artistic fields, paintings, sculptures and architecture, particularly about the proportion of bodies and buildings and of the former in relation with the latter. Beauty was again a matter of rules – after the lack of care of Medieval people[5] -, outcomes of mathematical studies of those brains of  Humanism, and again there was not much space for subjective taste.

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Michelangelo, Tondo Doni, 1503, Uffizi, Florence.

The ideas of balance and harmony of the Renaissance were most intense during the age of Mannerism (Michelangelo above others), with incredible tensions and torsions of the body towards something beyond the physical and the earthly. Human beings were often represented in dynamic, almost impossible, yoga positions and sometimes the exterior beauty was replaced by the interior (the purity of soul, the moral strength, the grace, the “Is he beautiful? Yes, he is funny”). There was no precise rule but instead the impression of something extraordinary, on the borderline with theatricality; the highest point of this idea of exuberant beauty was reached in the XVIII century with the Baroque and the Rococo styles. What we would now call…kitsch? And like after every steep rise, it happened to arrive to a turning point: the climbing bourgeoisie of the following century desired more individualism and at the same time rigour, tidiness, decorum, principles that, together with the new archaeological rediscovery, led to a trend called Neoclassicism.

Canova A., The three Graces, 1813-1816, Ermitage, Saint Petersburg.

Canova A., The three Graces, 1813-1816, Ermitage, Saint Petersburg.

The main person responsible for the spread of these new “rules of taste” was Johann Joachim Winckelmann who, in 1755, decided to write The History of Art in Antiquity stating that Classical beauty was actually an invention of humanists and it was time to return to the real antiquity. He was the first keen on revival. The achievement of the perfect beauty («noble simplicity and quiet grandeur») could be fulfilled in the ancient Greek way: the selection and juxtaposition of the “best” parts of nature, which is imperfect in itself. Not imitation of nature, but imitation of the ancients. Again beauty as a style, again theories, again canons, again proportions. They just could not have enough. The philosopher Hegel, in 1807, claimed that beauty was a balance between ideal and form, attuned with one another, and that «Greek sculpture was the one which characteristically used the human body presented as a perfect physical expression of thought»[6].

As the XVIII century is the age of “too much thinking”, men started to wonder again whether beauty can be judged and universally recognised. Immanuel Kant, yes, the guy obsessed with categorisation, ghost for every critic and scholar, in 1790 stated that human sentimental judgement had no purpose but the achievement of disinterested pleasure (we wish it was disinterested). Beauty, through the contemplation of objects, fulfils our needs of harmony and every intellect can universally recognise the “beautiful”, unlike the “pleasant”, which is received by the senses according to personal taste (de gustibus non disputandum[7], accordion to the Latin motto!). Recalling Winkelmann, Kant considered aesthetic pleasure as a result of observation of harmonic shapes and order of elements; as a consequence, continuous observation (of everything, not staring at one thing) establishes an education that allows the recognition of beauty. At the same time, the philosopher differentiated “free beauty” (pure, universal, without concept) from “dependent or adherent beauty”, that is conditional on ideal models given by the society, as it happened, and can happen nowadays, for fashion and architecture, where the judgement can be compromised of intellectual considerations and practice in relation with the purpose. Everything ok so far?

The latter concept is not so dissimilar from Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus two-thousand years later: during the 80s of the XX century, the French sociologist investigated around the twist between objective social structures and subjective experience. In his imaginary world, he called field every social system, in which the subject grows up, according to predispositions and experiences gained during his lifetime (the area of living, the social group, the personal facts, but also by trends and fashion). Yes, to understand you would need the book written in this footnote[8]. In his opinion, the internal structures are embodied by the person and work deep, becoming a natural entity to the individual. Progressively, men have realised that attempt to find a general rule for beauty was maybe, maybe, too ambitious.

The admission of Kant’s adherent beauty introduced, at least, the possibility of subjective taste. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, in 1741, said «Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty»[9]. Very romantic. Neoclassicism respected order and proportions in shapes, even in architecture, but at the same time started to give space to differences of taste, sensations and feelings of the modern man. It is the big truth of Romanticism, with its greater freedom of subject choice and the pleasure of imagination.

Individualism, the importance of feelings, new discoveries that obliged humanity to face the possibility of a different kind of taste, the Avant-Gardes. The acceptance of the non-existence of an objective judgment about beauty started to not be so easy. Oh yes, life is not all about rules. Consider for instance the Salon des Refusés of 1864 in Paris[10] (where most of the coolest paintings of history were strongly disapproved, like Manet’s Olympia and Monet’s Impression soleil levant): the official critic and the public obliged about three-thousand works of art to be put in a detached exhibition. But that was the beginning of a new wave. Anarchy! From then on, both art and taste began an age of plurality that is still lasting. Although, is it possible nowadays to agree on a common sense of taste?

Even though nowadays speculation on beauty can appear nearly anachronistic, a crazy-heads squeezing, a branch of neuroscience has tried to give some objective answers to humanity’s eternal questions. I will try to summarise a bunch of scientific reports, keep focused.

Semir Zeki, professor at the University College of London, in the mid-nineties founded what we call neuro-aesthetic[11], underlining the importance of art in studying the processes the brain knows reality with. Starting from his studies, two Italian scientists, Giacomo Rizzolati and Emiliano Macaluso, demonstrated how the brain works in front of a piece of art and the reactions toward beauty[12]. They examined with fMRI technique (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) the brain activity of a group of volunteers, naïve of art criticism, observing images of masterpieces of Classical and Renaissance sculptures next to modified versions of the same images. Analysing the reaction of the viewers to the originals, the researchers noticed the activation of the right insula (a brain region that reacts to emotional stimulus) and sets of some cortical neurons, that does not happen looking at the modified ones. Moreover, the images considered as “beautiful” caused the reaction of the right amygdala, area associated with emotionalism, learning and memories, as if the stimulus was connected with others received in the past. Interesting.

Example of canonical and modified stimuli: the Doryphoros.

Example of canonical and modified stimuli: the Doryphoros.

The insula mediates emotions and feelings, but it would be probably too reductive to think that the sense of beauty occurs because of the activation of this structure alone. As the art critic Ernst Hans Josef Gombrich wrote, elements in a picture which determine aesthetical experience are «deeply involved in our biological heritage»[13], although we are unable to give a conscious explanation to them. In fact, the amygdala responds to incoming information laden with emotional value and is activated by the signals which stimuli had produced pleasant experience in the past.

In conclusion, we do not have to despair to find a solution, because both objective and subjective factors intervene in determining our appreciation of an artwork: the insula and certain cortical neurons recognise beauty objectively, while the amygdala reacts thanks to embodied memories of sensations. The contemporary awareness tells us that if cultural heritage and memory are at a broadened social level, the perception of beauty is generally convergent to an objective point.

Centuries and centuries of conjecture by geniuses led us to…nothing. Like what you like, do not be affected. Kant would tell you are right. Am I confusing you more?

Silvia Meloni


Silvia Meloni (1988, Bergamo, Italy) is a young curator from Italy based in London, UK. She graduated in 2011 in Art History at Università deli Studi di Milano (Italy) and she completed an MA degree in Art History in Pavia (Italy) with specialisation in Contemporary Art. She is attending the MA Curating the Contemporary at the Cass Faculty of Art (London), in conjunction with the Whitechapel Gallery. She is currently collaborating with The Agency Gallery, London.


[1] Xenophon (V-IV cent. BC), Socratic dialogue III (1994) Memorabilia, trans. Amy L. Bonnette, introd. by Christopher Bruell, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, The Agora Editions.

[2] Vitruvius (I cent. BC), De architectura, Milan: Einaudi, 1997, III, 1.

[3] Rothko, M. (2006), The artists reality: Philosophies of Art, London: Yale University Press, p. 68.

[4] Leonardo (1947), Scheme of proportions of the human body, Florence, Galleri dell’Accademia;

Luca Pacioli, De divina proportione;

Cesare Cesariano (1521), Di Lucio Vitruvio Pollione de architectura libri dece traducti de latino in vulgare affigurati: commentati et con mirando ordine insigniti;

Durer, Vier Bücher von menschlicher Proportion (“Four books on Human Proportions”, 1528).

[5] Eco, U. (2004), History of Beauty Milan: Bompiani, pp. 90-97, 100-113.

[6] Hofstadter, A. (1976), Philosophies of art and beauty, Chicago: University of Chicago, p. 88.

[7] Approximate translation: “In matters of taste, there can be no disputes”.

[8] Webb, J., Schirato, T., Danaher, G. (2002), Understanding Bourdieu, Crows Nest, Australia: Sage publications.

[9] Hume, D. (1741-48), Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, XXIII, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987.

[10] In 1864, after a protest of the artists rejected from the Salon of the Académie des beaux-arts of Paris, Napoleon III set up another exhibition of “non-official” art. It was the launch of artists as Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas. Desnoyers, F. (1863) Salon des refusés : la peinture en 1863, Paris: Dutil.

[11] Zeki, S. (2000), Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain, Qxford: University Press.

[12]Rizzolatti, G., Macaluso E., Di Dio C. (2007), “The Golden Beauty: Brain Response to Classical and Renaissance Sculptures” (PLoS ONE, Nov. 21).

[13] Gombrich, E. (1984), Tributes. Interpreters of our cultural tradition; Oxford: Phaidon Press.

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